Trump’s Budget Puts Climate Research Program on Thin Ice

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By Catherine Douglas Moran

The U.S. could fall behind on mitigating expensive and irreversible damage from climate change domestically as a result of the White House’s proposed cuts to an interagency research program’s budget.Funding worries for the domestic climate and climate-related research program come at a time of uncertainty about the Trump administration’s priorities for climate change as it slashes funding for that work across the government. President Donald Trump has pledged that the U.S. will exit the Paris Agreement and has proposed a fiscal year 2018 budget that would discontinue more than $100 million in funding for several climate change research and partnership programs.

Margaret Leinen, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego who previously served on the National Science and Technology Council’s environment committee that guides the U.S. Global Change Research Program, told Bloomberg BNA that if major cuts are made to the program, the decreased funding will not stop or alter the course of climate research. But she said it may affect the country’s reputation internationally and reduce the amount of domestic research.

“Other countries are not going to do the work on impact in the U.S. for us,” she said. “No one else is going to do that research for us, so that’s really what’s at risk when we cut the U.S. climate research.”

Comprised of nearly a dozen agencies and departments, Congress created the program in 1990 under the Global Change Research Act (Pub. Law No. 101-606) to better understand human-caused and natural climate changes and to develop mitigation and adaptation policies. Every three years Congress requires the submission of a strategic plan outlining goals and priorities for the next 10 years, and no less than every four years Congress and the president receive a national scientific assessment on the research program’s findings.

Funding Fluctuations

The largest contributors to the program include NASA, the Energy Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

Some of the agencies submit requests for the research program as a part of their budgets. Others calculate their contribution to the program from allotted research grants. The program’s annual report that explains and breaks down the budget request is expected in a few months.

Here are the known agency funding requests for Global Change Research Program for fiscal 2018, according to the agencies:

  •  National Science Foundation: $264 million—a decrease of $66 million from its actual fiscal 2016 amount
  •  Smithsonian: $8 million—largely steady from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2018 request
  •  Energy Department: $84.2 million—a decrease of $144.7 million from its fiscal 2017 enacted appropriation
  •  EPA: Global Change Research listed as a proposed eliminated sub-program along with other science programs
“I think it’s really important that people understand that there are real risks, and the risks are not just for polar bears or for coral reefs,” Leinen said. “They are for us and our economy and what our livelihood is like.”

Leinen said the collaboration between the agencies is only as good as the budgets provided. The research program has tried to recover from funding dips by accepting proposals from scientists who were turned away at other agencies, but one agency will not assess the impacts of climate and environmental change for another agency’s mission, she said.

Congress Could Rescue Funding

While Congress and the administration set the priorities for climate change research, Congress probably won’t eliminate or “massively” cut funding for the program in the upcoming fiscal year, Leinen said.

“Each administration comes in seeing the problem of climate change with their own lens and may have different priorities,” Leinen said. “I think that one of the things that was quite, quite clear in the 2017 deliberations was that Congress did protect, Congress did acknowledge the importance of climate change research and made sure that it was funded to the best of their ability.”

Overall, funding for Global Change Research Program grew 30.2 percent from fiscal 2000 to the fiscal 2017 request, peaking in 2003, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After declining during President George W. Bush’s administration, the program was revitalized in fiscal 2009 when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided an additional $641 million.

Anthony Janetos, a Boston University biologist and next chairman of the National Academies of Science advisory committee for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, told Bloomberg BNA that there is “nothing concrete to put our fingers on” financially for fiscal 2018, until the multiple appropriations committees that handle the agency budgets piece together the funding.

“Even small changes can make a difference in what gets done,” he said. “The accumulation of the kind of scientific knowledge is best served by budgets that don’t radically change from year to year.”

Agency Overlap and Collaboration

Two Republican committee aides familiar with the research program’s reports told Bloomberg BNA that it will probably not face funding problems. However, one of the aides said the cuts might be justified by potential duplication of climate modeling and other resources at the agencies.

“Is this funding cut in one place? Is there an offset somewhere else where the federal government is already doing research into that topic?” the aide said. “The federal government doesn’t need to be spending money on any sort of competing research.”

One of the reasons that Congress created the research program was to reduce the redundancy between agencies, John Furlow, the deputy director for humanitarian assistance and international development at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, told Bloomberg BNA. He was a USAID representative to the climate change research program.

“There might be a little bit of redundancy, but I think there’s more complementarity,” he said. “If you cut something that NASA is doing, it might make it more difficult for NOAA to do its piece. So I mean just as a very coarse example, if NASA doesn’t launch satellites, NOAA can’t stick instruments on those satellites.”

He said he is concerned about the uncertainty for climate funding and what that will mean for the program’s future if the budgets for the EPA, NOAA, and National Science Foundation plummet.

If the climate research program’s funding is slashed, Furlow said public outreach, website maintenance, and production of reports for Congress may be constrained.

“It probably would not be the end of the world but just reduce the amount of outreach that GCRP can provide,” Furlow said. “I don’t know what happens if the funding were to become so constrained that they couldn’t pass the smell test of meeting the requirements of that law.”

Political Controversies

This is not the first time that the Global Change Research Program has faced funding cuts and encountered concerns about potential political influence on its science.

One of the majority committee aides said the reports were used to further the agenda of the Obama administration by narrowly focusing on human-caused climate change instead of global change.

“I think we could agree that the politics has influenced the work of GCRP over the years,” the aide said. “I think the conclusions of the National Climate Assessment are used to support climate policies specifically of the last administration and that’s its job, that’s its goal, that’s its duty. Support the president.”

Leinen said she thinks politics influence the funding, but not the science.

“Although there can be political push, there are so many other forces that I don’t think the science gets steered,” she said. “Does the politics get steered by the science? Sometimes.”

—With assistance from Dean Scott.

To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Douglas Moran in Washington at cmoran@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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